Monthly Archives: April 2012

From Bach to Shostakovich

As I write this I have a large ice pack on my right shoulder. It has been complaining a bit after a quick transition within one week from playing Bach and friends with a delicate, historically informed sound with few accents to pages of the cello equivalent of screaming at the top of my lungs with accents, loud chords and other such means by which Shostakovich asks his trio to depict violence, war and oppression. I resumed some of my forgotten back strengthening exercises in preparation for the physical endurance needed for this program. I am enjoying the challenge, and finding a way to pull the sound from my core, from my whole body.

It was only two weeks ago that I was working extremely hard to transcend the limits of my 20th set up cello, an instrument designed to cut across large concert halls, compete with a nine foot grand piano or an orchestra. Bach just sounded so aggressive with my steel strings, Belgian bridge and modern bow. It took much awareness to overcome my usual cellistic patterns of speech and to instead pull the sound and light up on off beats, to play with a delicacy and nuance that reflects an age when things were different. It would have come more naturally with a baroque bow and cello, but I am not so fortunate to own these at present. But the end result was very satisfying and through this process I began to explore the ways in which I might be set up by the modern world to be aggressive, accented and commanding in my presence and wondered what it would it be like to be gentle, graceful and warm. I considered a softer approach to the world at large, and resolved to release various grudges I had been carrying and lighten up.

My concert demands had me then jump almost 250 years forward to the 2nd world war as expressed by a small, oppressed Russian man with spectacles. In rehearsals with Trio Lumiere we are finding ourselves looking into the eyes of deep human suffering, violence, aggression, and the atrocities of war. Depicting this violence is cathartic on some level, as we give voice to the unbridled rage in parts of the last movement, sadistic joviality in the 2nd movement and utter hopelessness in the 3rd movement. All at once I am in the position of needing to discover as much physical and emotional intensity I can muster. I know how to do this. I know how to give everything that I have got and even push the limits of my instrument to capacity, even if it takes some adjusting for my small frame to adjust physically. Just as I surrendered to the delicacy of Bach I am surrendering to the horror of Shostakovich.

But somehow with the horror comes the best of humanity. Bach asked me to be gentle, eloquent and kind. Shostakovich tells me to transcend my fear, speak the truth but not to be alone in my suffering. In a strange way Shostakovich also calls forth tenderness, a communal grieving. He asks for compassion. As I imagine and express the suffering of other humans my heart opens. The trio violinist Klaudia grew up in Poland and the realities of this trio are still deeply embedded in her cultural memory. She describes the beginning of the first movement like people huddled in a dark cell with the light barely finding its way through the bars. Our Russian coach described the opening as depicting the early morning when the KGB were known to remove people from their houses, never to be heard from again. The early morning was also the time when Poland was attacked and the 2nd World War began. I see it as the barely human voice of trauma of any kind, when we feel powerless and too frozen and numb to cry with all the unspoken agony of what we have known. Our pianist says little but her notes express what she feels. All of us have our story of anguish, and so often we think ours is the most significant and painful story or deepest suffering.  But in exploring this suffering together, we discover we are not alone. This is not a lone cello voice here, but a trio of equals wailing together, holding each-other in the darkness as the bombs fall.

My mind moves to the small and frightened man who wrote such powerful music and I am in awe of one who had the courage and tenacity to speak such an unspeakable truth about human pain and all the while under the watchful eye of Stalin and the fear of arrest and banishment to Siberia.